Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cooking on the PCT

What are the cooking options on the PCT?

  1. No stove, no cooking. Lightest option in terms of cookware, and makes the eating process as quick as possible. However, the use of exclusively no-cook food may end up adding weight, since these foods may contain more water. Also, it is somewhat easier to tire of uncooked dry foods. 
  2. Gas stove. Adds a lot of weight: stove + fuel. Finding fuel canisters along the trail may be problematic. Compared to the no stove option, hikers with gas stoves will find themselves carrying approx. 300 or more grams on average. 
  3. Alcohol stove. The stove itself weighs almost nothing, but HEET is sold in bottles that may be heavier than backpackers would like. However, HEET is readily available in nearly all trailside towns. Total average weight of cooking gear could be even more than that of a gas stove setup. The solution would be to obtain small amounts of alcohol at a time (filling up a smaller bottle and pouring out the rest of the HEET that I don't need), keeping the average weight of the stove equipment to 150 grams or less. 
  4. Esbit stove. Stove weighs almost nothing, and fuel tabs, while expensive, are significantly lighter than alcohol. Getting fuel tabs on the trail may be problematic.
  5. Wood stove. The Bush Buddy weighs about 140 grams, which makes it a lighter option than gas or alcohol stoves. It's fun to use, and fuel is unlimited, but cooking time may be greater than with other stoves. Also, hikers have to learn to deal with smoot on their pots. 
  6. Cook fires. Lighter than even a wood stove, but perhaps not as efficient or manageable as a special stove. Soot may be an issue.
Mailing fuel

Here is an excellent article on shipping fuel and combustibles to PCT hikers by mail. Basically, all fuel types can be shipped, but only if certain precautions are kept. This makes it possible to mail smaller amounts of fuel to oneself while on the trail, reducing the average carried weight of one's stove setup significantly.

My choice

Originally, I needed to make a decision in favor of either my Bush Buddy wood-burning stove, or an alcohol stove which would weigh next to nothing. When I realized that I may have to carry around more HEET fuel at any given time than I needed, I decided to stick with the Bush Buddy. With my MSR Titan 0.85 L pot, my cooking setup would have come to 275 grams. I had also been considering taking my 2 L pot, whose larger size makes cooking big meals easier, as well as using the pot for washing one's body (though I can do a full body wash, including hair, with just a 0.85 L pot). 

Then I did some soul-searching. On the CDT in Colorado, my girlfriend was generally in charge of the cooking (I would usually light and feed the stove). When I'm on my own, I don't have a lot of patience for cooking meals and tend to skip cooking whenever I feel at all rushed. I don't know that I'm going to often feel like taking long breaks specifically to cook, and I'll probably gravitate towards quick-cooking foods anyway. For my needs, 275 grams of cooking gear seems like overkill. 

What I've finally settled on is a single 1 liter pot -- the K-Mart grease strainer (pot) -- which weighs in at 107 grams without the strainer part. It costs $7 and seems to be sold at any K-Mart store. It is superior to the Walmart grease strainer because the lip is rolled outward, not inward, and thus will not catch food. Both pots are made out of aluminum, which is lighter, but somewhat more malleable than titanium. Removing the lid handle, as many people do, saves a trifling 6 grams, but some ease of use is lost, so I put it back on. The pot is wider and lower than my MSR Titan and seems to be a more usable shape for both eating and washing. When I want to make some hot food, I'll build a cook fire and set the sufficiently wide pot across two stones over the fire. If practical, I may carry a few Esbit solid fuel tabs on each section to avoid having to build (and extinguish) fires. Either way, I save about 170 grams of cooking gear and have a setup that better fits my actual needs. Basically, all I need is a pot, and most of the time I won't be heating anything in it. 

My single utensil is a long-handled titanium spoon which weighs 10 g. I love the long handle and find I never need a fork during my backpacking trips anyway. 

I still have some doubts about this decision as I think about my nutritional needs. I've recently discovered some inexpensive dehydrated meals that are full of nutrients, and I can't cook those three times a day on Esbit tablets (expensive!). The jury's still out...

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